Adam Knauss   |   Pianist, Vocalist, Entertainer
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Selected Program Notes


for soprano voice and baritone saxophone

Portrait, for soprano voice and baritone saxophone, was commissioned by soprano Elisabeth Halliday and saxophonist Zach Herchen, as part of their Emerging Voices Project, to commission, record, and perform new works for voice and saxophone. The piece was recorded and premiered by Halliday and Herchen in 2011.

In keeping with the Emerging Voices Project's theme of the loss of childhood innocence, the text of Portrait is an excerpt from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which the story's protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, observes a beautiful young girl on a beach and experiences an epiphany that changes the course of his life. The piece divides into four large sections, the first serving as an introduction to the scene and to the character of the protagonist, the second a description of the scene and how the protagonist reacts to it, the third an introspective and very detailed description of the girl, and the fourth (beginning with a wild saxophone cadenza), a depiction of the intense emotional release the protagonist experiences as he runs from the scene. Musically, the piece aims not only to reflect the beauty of Joyce's text itself, but to capture the emotions of the protagonist as well the mood of his surroundings. The music begins playfully with a touch of mystery in the first two sections, reflecting the beach scene and the youthfulness of the protagonist, and then becomes patiently quiet and slow as he becomes lost in thought and observation. Toward the end of this section, there is a gradual build in musical tension, until finally, the music, like the Dedalus himself, bursts forth with raw emotion into uncharted territory.

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White Fog: A Dreamscape

for cello, tenor saxophone, and vibraphone

White Fog: A Dreamscape was composed in 2007-2008 and was premiered by No Signal, a new music ensemble based in Baltimore in which the composer performs. The title refers to a view on a foggy night from the window of a city apartment, in which fluorescent lights illuminate the fog, obscuring all but a few nearby buildings, and creating an atmosphere both serene and surreal. The contrast of the cool and damp atmosphere outside with the warm and safe atmosphere inside inspired this piece; the music aims to reflect a sense of solace, if only a temporary one, amidst a less comforting environment and the possibility of a more daunting future.

The piece unfolds slowly, beginning with the vibraphone and gradually introducing the cello and tenor saxophone, mirroring the vast spacious feeling of the foggy city view. The form of the piece is a loose A-B-A-coda, in which the vibraphone opens the A section with a recurring theme, soon to be joined by the cello in counterpoint. The B section is a more stoic dialogue between the cello and saxophone, and the return of the A section coincides with the first time all three instruments play together. The piece concludes as all the instruments gradually fade out and the three players quietly hum a portion of a melody from earlier in the piece, thus closing with an almost ghostly reflection on the city scene.

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String Quartet in three movements

This quartet was composed in 2007, and in a broad sense, it follows the Classical three-movement (fast-slow-fast) form. While the overall form may be considered classical, portions of the piece were inspired by the American Minimalist movement, particularly the first movement, much of which is underscored by a sixteenth-note ostinato. This ostinato gives way to a more playful and contrapuntal pizzicato passage in the middle of the movement, only to return with force, and finally to gradually morph into a contrasting coda, in which the overall tonal center of F gives way to E, and the constant fast rhythms give way to a slow chorus of half notes.

The second movement opens with a high major triad, which returns several times through the movement, each time leading the ensemble down a different path, either to a frenetic passage full of odd rhythms and sharply contrasting dynamics, or to a forceful unison followed by a placid dialogue of violin harmonics, or finally to an emotional outburst of high and intense chords followed by a restatement of the movement's opening.

The lively third movement alternates between a rollicking 12/8 section and a Baroque-inspired passage at a moderate tempo. These two ideas merge later in the movement, only then to lead into what might be termed a double coda. The first, a passage of fast eighth notes in all the instruments, serves as a coda for the movement. Immediately following is an echo of the end of the first movement, serving as a coda for the entire piece.

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Reflections of Change

Reflections of Change is a piece of widely varying textures, building gradually from the sparsest orchestration in the beginning to the dense texture at the piece's climax, and returning gradually to where it began. Over the course of this process, several motives are introduced, recurring more frequently and in combination as the texture becomes denser. This piece is somewhat related in subject matter to an earlier piece, Miserere Nobis, for choir; both pieces aim to evoke a general sense of the way one deals with the changes that occur in one's life. Also like Miserere Nobis, Reflections of Change is not programmatic; rather, its story is of a more general human experience, and is thus open to interpretation.

Reflections of Change was originally composed for large chamber ensemble, and was premiered in this form on April 2, 2007 by ALEA III, Boston University's new music ensemble in residence, under the baton of Theodore Antoniou. The version for full orchestra was completed in November 2007, and was read and recorded on April 14, 2008 by the Peabody Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ruben Capriles.

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Six Inventions in the manner of J.S. Bach

for solo piano

These Six Inventions were a project that lasted from September 2006 to September 2007. Throughout this year, the inventions acted as a "between compositions" project, a sort of lighter undertaking after working on a larger chamber piece or a lengthy string quartet. Most were written over the course of several days. Yet, somewhat ironically, they have come together to form a piece of significant size.

Each invention, while not necessarily recalling the tonal language or general mood of a Bach Invention, does evoke the music of Bach in a number of ways. Each is highly contrapuntal, usually with three or four independent voices present at any given point. Each makes use of one or more recurring motives, usually employing Baroque-style rhythmic figures. Often, there is a compositional process at work, sometimes resembling the sort of "tricks" that Bach used, such as canonic imitation (Invention 2), various degrees of rhythmic augmentation of a subject (Inventions 5 and 6), or a motive in counterpoint with its inversion (Inventions 1 and 4). Others are more of my own design, such as constant linear motion by fourths and fifths (Invention 3). Finally, the set culminates in Invention 6 with several (more obvious) tributes to Bach's influence.

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Miserere Nobis

for SATB choir and piano

Miserere Nobis.

Does it make you sad to know that this could be the last time?
Everything could change today, now and forever.

Miserere Nobis was composed for a Boston University concert of works by BU students, alumni, and faculty, at which this piece was given its premiere. The bulk of the piece is a setting of the Latin phrase for "Have mercy on us," heard most commonly within the Agnus Dei of a Mass. The final section is an a cappella setting of an English text written by the composer. In the case of each text, no specific meaning is intended. Rather, both are meant to acknowledge the troubles that everyone encounters in life, and at the same time to provide a sense of sympathy. While the text is most closely associated with the Catholic liturgy, the piece is not necessarily religious in nature (but again, it can be what each listener makes of it). The English text is deliberately vague, allowing the audience to relate to it in whatever ways they choose. The music is intended to represent a range of emotions, with the same text heard in soft, tender three part harmony at one moment, and in anguished cries the next. By the same token, the vocal harmonies and the piano accompaniment sometimes complement each other as expected, but sometimes clash in dissonance. As a whole, the piece can have many meanings, and it aims only to evoke a sense of some of things that any given person might be feeling.

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Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

This Sonata was composed in 2005 for clarinetist Ryan Yuré, and consists of three movements of varying character. The first movement, aside from its non-Classical tonal relationships, follows the traditional Sonata-Allegro form, with the first theme consisting of lively, disjointed staccato eighth notes, and the second theme marked by a more smoothly flowing melody in 6/8 meter. The first theme opens with a four-note motive that reappears throughout the movement, often heralding the start of formal sections or important transitions. The nearly constant eighth-note motion relates the two themes and brings unity to the entire movement. The second movement contrasts starkly against the first, with the piano intoning the main theme of the movement with slow and steady counterpoint, soon to be joined by the clarinet playing a simple three-note motive which recurs throughout the movement. The movement is almost stubbornly slow, as if to emphasize the contrapuntal relationship between the two instruments with each passing eighth note. Just after the movement reaches its climactic peak, the listener gets the sense that the "floor drops out," as both instruments begin playing notably softer, retracing their steps to the somber character of the opening measures.

The clarinet's opening chromatic ostinato in the third movement begins with the same pitch where it ended the second movement, creating a sense of continuity, as well as a significant contrast in character. This final movement showcases the dexterity of both the clarinetist and pianist and incorporates humor more than the first two movements. It opens with both instruments playing bits and pieces of the movement's main thematic material, almost as if they're having trouble getting started. Eventually, after slowing to a stop, the piano begins in a largely accompanimental role while the clarinet plays the lively theme. The melody is developed by both instruments until the final section, in which the clarinet and piano play the theme in unison, driving toward the movement's forceful conclusion.

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